Slouching towards the abyss

Hisham Melhem

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“The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity” - William Butler Yeats

The decision by President Obama to deploy less than fifty American Special Operation forces to Kurdish-controlled northern Syria to assist and advise local forces and coordinate bombing raids with the international air campaign is emblematic of his leadership style in dealing with the raging conflicts in Iraq and Syria; incremental, tactical, timid and reactive.

There is an Orwellian quality to this deployment. emanating from the president’s insistence that he will not deploy ground troops to both military theatres in combat missions, hence the emphatic, unconvincing claim that these forces, which will be in harm’s way “do not have a combat mission” according to White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

President Obama was compelled to order this limited deployment because of the changing military balance following Russia’s direct involvement in the war on the side of the Assad regime, and the failure of the aerial campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that the U.S. has led for more than a year. The president, who will soon begin his eighth and last year in office, is cognizant of the fact that his legacy will be tarnished irrevocably if he spends the few months of his tenure scrambling to prevent the unraveling of Iraq or greater humanitarian catastrophes in Syria or the emergence of Moscow and Tehran as the arbiters of the Syria's future - or what's left of it.

At best, the Obama administration is trying through its limited military role in northern Syria - and through its acquiescence to Iran’s participation in diplomatic efforts - to increase the pressure on ISIS, particularly against its “capital” Raqqa, and to give diplomacy another chance, even though many in the administration don’t believe that a political breakthrough is possible any time soon. But it is in the interest of the White House to appear trying to revive the “Geneva process” and give the eternally optimistic John Kerry another chance to pursue a Chimera in Syria.

Militarily, the U.S. will be dependent mainly on the People’s Protection Units, The so-called YPG who fought ISIS at Kobane, and a smaller Syrian Arab forces operating in Northeastern Syria. However, the YPG lacks the power to seriously threaten ISIS in Raqqa, and no one expects the Kurds to fight outside their own territory or to lead a military assault against an Arab majority city. Thus, the new military effort, reflect Obama’s Modus operandi; incremental, tactical, timid and reactive

Passionate intensity vs. lack of conviction

If Obama’s decision on the special forces represents a very modest military shift, his decision to reverse Washington’s long held opposition to invite Iran to participate in the diplomatic efforts to reach a political solution to the war in Syria represents a more fateful decision for the Syrian people. Both decisions, at least in the foreseeable future, are bound to make the Syrian wars more lethal and more destructive and less susceptible to diplomatic resolution.

If the last four years of devastation proved anything, it is that Syria’s conflicts could and will get much worse, particularly when the supporters of the Assad regime, particularly Iran and its auxiliary militias display their “passionate intensity” on the battlefield, and the supporters of the Syrians fighting tyranny, particularly the Obama administration, continue to demonstrate that they “lack all conviction.”

Ever since the beginning of the uprising in Syria, the Obama administration has been consistent in its delusional belief that Russia can be a constructive player in Syria, and hence its continued misreading of Russia’s political intentions and now its military end-game. Russia – and Iran- are not willing to seriously contemplate doing the one thing all Syrian oppositions group agree on; getting rid of Bashar Assad and his henchmen.

From the moment the Russians began their air war against Assad’s enemies, some of them were equipped by the United States, the Obama administration’s mantra has been that Russia has embarked on a strategic blunder, and that Putin will rue the day he stumbled into the first military quagmire in a majority Muslim country since the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Secretary of defense Ashton Carter said recently that Russia is “doomed to fail” in Syria, and that Moscow has not ‘thought through very thoroughly’ its adventure in Syria.

While it is unfair to blame President Obama solely for the deteriorating relations, it is also true that he did not exercise strong leadership to influence the outcome of the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Libya

Hisham Melhem

Antony Blinken, the U.S. deputy secretary of state told a mostly Arab audience in Manama, Bahrain that “Russia’s intervention in Syria is a prime example of the law of unintended consequences. It will have two primary effects,” He added “first, it will increase Russia’s leverage over Assad. But second, it will increase the conflict’s leverage over Russia. And that will create a compelling incentive to Russia to work for, not against, a political solution.” In other words, the outcome of Russia’s intervention in Syria, if we are patient and wait for Russia to see the light, will be positive.

The Obama administration, in its brazen attempts not to own its strategic folly in Syria, which made the Russian intervention possible, is willing to allow more time for Russia - along with Iran and Assad’s forces - to inflict more unimaginable suffering on the Syrian people in order for the Russians to come around and see the wisdom of the American assessment of the conflict and its eventual resolution. This is an abominable case of wishful thinking masquerading as policy.

Either Assad or ISIS

Much has been written about the divergent visions of Russia and Iran about the ultimate resolution of Syria’s conflicts and the fate of the Assad regime. It is said that Russia is interested in a unitary state led by a friendly secular regime in Damascus with an army to safeguard the institutions of the state. (Putin’s secular Russia smells very much like the Orthodox Mother Russia of yore, where the Russian Church declares a “holy war” against the Islamists of Syria, and the priests throw holy waters on the missiles that the Russian pilots will fire, presumably to make them more deadly?)

Iran, in contrast is mainly interested in maintaining an Alawite regime in that vital part of Western Syria that Iran needs to supply its Hezbollah client in Lebanon with heavy weaponry to be used against Israel in case of another conflict, and that Iran is content to maintain its influence in Syria through its Shiite proxies. Theoretically these views are divergent. But the fact remains that both Russia and Iran are not willing so far to abandon the man and the regime that gave them unprecedented influence and power in his own country, and in the case of Iran, in Lebanon too.

In this context, Iran’s acceptance of the June 2012 Geneva Final Communique regarding the political transition in Syria, does not indicate new flexibility. It is conceivable in the future, if both Russia and Iran can impose a new political order that will safeguard their strategic interests without Assad that they will unceremoniously dump him. The Russians keep saying that Assad remaining throughout the transitional period is crucial for the fight against ISIS and the other radical Islamists, and given that they are bombing mostly the Islamists that are fighting Assad and not ISIS, it is clear that they are trying to present the U.S. and the other members of the anti-Assad coalition with a binary choice from hell; either Assad or ISIS.

It is no secret that America’s traditional Arab friends don’t trust the Obama administration’s policies in the Middle East and their alienation from Washington has been deepened following the nuclear deal with Iran. While it is unfair to blame President Obama solely for the deteriorating relations, it is also true that the fact that he did not exercise strong leadership to influence the outcome of the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Libya, and his reluctance to deter Iran’s mischief in the Levant and Mesopotamia, weigh heavily on the region. Obama’s problematic relations with the leaders of Israel and Turkey, for a variety of reasons, has added more anxiety and uncertainty in a region that already feels that it is no longer as important to the United States as it used to be only few years ago.

Slouching towards the abyss

There is a growing concern in the region, that things will deteriorate further, or fall apart in the next months of the life of the Obama presidency, and that the U.S. will not be able or willing with him at the helm to stem the decline. One cannot talk realistically about potential positive breakthroughs in the conflicts raging in Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Libya. Egypt at best will continue to muddle through a low intensity civil strife, and the chances of Lebanon imploding in 2016 are very real. The continuing war in Syria and Hezbollah’s involvement in it, the growing pressure of the Syrian refugees, the total political dysfunction in Beirut, when seen against the background of a crushing national debt, do constitute a perfect storm from which the brittle country may not recover.

Iran may be facing economic travails at home, and political challenges in the Arab world, but Iran is an ascendant Shiite power in the region and it is projecting itself as the protectors of the Shiite Arabs. What makes that rise very salient and Jarring, is that there is no equally assertive Sunni power willing and able to counterbalance Iran. This lack of equilibrium is made much worse, from the perspective of those in the region who use to look for the U.S. to maintain a semblance of regional balance. Many Arabs and Europeans are beginning to see and feel the new pressure of a new international reality emanating from the perception that America has lost its clear predominance in world affairs.

The collapse of the bipolar world following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, gave way to a brief unipolar American moment. That unique American moment began to whittle away following the Afghan and Iraqi wars. The American primacy today is being challenged by an irredentist and assertive Russia, by a very ambitious China seeking to create an exclusive Chinese zone in its immediate environment along with the naval power necessary to maintain that influence, and by an increasingly belligerent Iran.

The Obama administration rejects the claim that the U.S. is in an entrenchment mode. But clearly the leadership style of the President, and his well-known reluctance to use decisive military force, his constant talk about partnerships and coalitions where regional powers play greater leadership roles, and the fact that the U.S. supposedly led from behind during the Libyan conflict, are clear signs that the U.S. despite its economic power and military preponderance, is in fact under Obama in an entrenchment mode.

When you combine this American posture, with the colossal failure of the Arab state system over the last fifty years in creating and maintaining modern, viable, fair, open and representative forms of governance, which led to the current calamities, one could see the extent of the historic challenges facing many of the states of the region. This is the view of many in the Middle East. It is no wonder that those concerned about America’s diminishing leadership role in the region, and are cognizant of their own failures, are watching with a deep sense of resignation their world slouching towards the abyss.

Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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